The earth looks so tranquil from space. That peacefulness is often the focus of astronauts, movies, and pop songs. A silent blue orb, perfectly calm, that obscures completely the never-ending conflict you’ll find on the surface. When you see the earth in Three One Zero’s forthcoming game Adrift, you’ll want to pause to take it all in as soon as it comes into view. But this is a very bad idea — in Adrift, your oxygen supply is low and getting lower by the second. If you don’t find fresh air soon, you will die.
The first title made by former Electronic Arts developers, Adrift is a riveting adventure set in the ruins of a space station. The game comes out on Steam, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One in September. But at E3 2015 today, I got to try a test build that will eventually emerge on the Oculus Rift — and it was one of the most overwhelming and humbling experiences I’ve had in virtual reality to date.
Starting off in a state of total disorientation
Adrift starts you off in a state of total disorientation. You come to inside a chamber within the station that is rapidly deteriorating. Your helmet is cracked, and you’re losing oxygen. Using a gamepad, you tentatively begin to move. You’re moving across three dimensions, and there’s nowhere to stand: so instead you spin, desperate to find the horizon as your heads-up display shows your rapidly depleting oxygen. Fortunately, bottles of precious O2 are floating around you — but it’s up to you to grab on to them as they fly by, and the first few times you miss will fill you with dread.
Over the course of the fight for survival, you’ll find audio logs that explain what happened to your crew and the space station. As you explore the ruined space station and spacewalk from room to room, you’ll also learn your identity. It’s a relatively short game — Three One Zero prefers “first-person experience” — intended to be played in roughly the same amount of time it would take to watch a long movie. And while it’s not a violent game, you can die. Along with their time at EA, the developers previously worked on games from the Halo and Call of Duty franchises, and they’ve built mechanics into Adrift that balance a sense of progression with an ever-present crescendo of danger.
You're Sandra Bullock with no George Clooney to help you
Developers say Adrift’s influences included 2001: A Space Odyssey, the music of Pink Floyd, and a site called YouAreListening.to that broadcasts live police-scanner audio over dreamy, ambient music. But if you’re a filmgoer, the thing it will call to mind most is Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s thriller about a first-time astronaut trying to make it safely home after the death of her crew. Adrift casts you in the Sandra Bullock role, only there’s no George Clooney to hold your hand through the game’s earliest sections. Instead there’s just mounting dread, punctuated by brief stolen glances at the earth in the background.
In the end, I found my time with Adrift overwhelming in a literal sense — it made my pulse race and breath shorten, and I felt disoriented to the point of being glad when my character eventually died and I had an excuse to take my headset off. (Virtual reality sickness is real, and people have varying sensitivities to it. I find that my own response varies greatly depending on the style of game or experience.)
In a way, I’m more excited to play Adrift as a good old-fashioned digital download on PlayStation 4: it will let me focus on the exploration and gameplay, rather than simply breathing and staying upright. Once I get the hang of it, I may even get to take a good long look at the world left behind.